“Whenever Israel does anything to defend itself, it is accused of acting disproportionately or committing war crimes. That there is a new form of anti-Semitism at work here is unquestionable” • An interview with my father, Norman Podhoretz.
Since the 1980 U.S. presidential election, Norman Podhoretz has been called — along with ?the late Irving Kristol — one of the two “founding fathers of neoconservatism.” A member of the Democratic Party disillusioned with what he and a growing group of other liberals viewed as a radical shift away from the values they held dear, Podhoretz ?supported Republican candidate Ronald Reagan.
A mere four years earlier, he had voted for Jimmy Carter — who ran against incumbent Gerald Ford — on the grounds that “when in doubt, go for the Democrat; he will at least be better for Israel, and probably for America.”
Podhoretz’s complete about-face on this score was a gradual process, however, that began during the Vietnam War. Though initially opposed to it, he became increasingly disgusted by the anti-war movement. When fellow members of the intellectual Left began to spew ?vitriol against America — even likening it to Nazi Germany — Podhoretz was not on board, to put it mildly.
The editor-in-chief of Commentary magazine between 1960 and 1995, and the author of hundreds of controversial articles and 12 books (among them “World War IV: The Long ?Struggle against Islamofascism”), Podhoretz was awarded the 2004 Medal of Freedom by George W. Bush, and the Guardian of Zion award by the Ingeborg Rennert Center for ?Jerusalem Studies at Bar-Ilan University in 2007.
He is married to author and social critic Midge Decter, whose own political journey from Left to Right coincided and was enmeshed with his. Separately and together, they have been vilified for their politics and vindicated by them.
They also happen to be my parents. And in spite of having been accused decades ago by ideological foes of “dual loyalty” to the U.S. and Israel, when I made aliyah in 1977, my father, now 84, was not happy about it.
“You are the only person I know with downward mobility,” he quipped at the time.
Since then, he has made his peace with my move, often joking that my columns in Israel Hayom “are liable to turn me into the kind of Zionist everyone has accused me of being.”
During an interview with him at his home in New York in June — a few weeks before the outbreak of Operation Protective Edge — Podhoretz summarized his complex worldview in a nutshell: “When in doubt, go for the Republican; he will at least be better for Israel — and certainly for America.”
The new war in Iraq spurred you to write an article defending the Bush ?administration’s original invasion and critical of President Barack Obama’s subsequent policies. Now that the Sunni terrorist organization ISIS (Islamic State of Iraq and ?the Levant) is taking over the western part of the country, Obama is sending U.S. ?troops there. What is your position on this current strategy?
“We have no good option in Iraq at the moment, but the greater immediate danger is that Obama will use this as another excuse for letting Iran off the hook in the negotiations over its acquisition of nuclear weapons.”
You have advocated bombing Iran. Not believing that the Obama administration is ?going to it, you have said that it will have to be up to Israel. But can Israel go it ?alone??
“Yes. According to assessments of people I trust, Israel has the capability to inflict a lot of ?damage in one day. The real question is what happens on Day 2. The Obama ?administration would undoubtedly be furious at Israel for undertaking it unilaterally. But ?I think it would be enormously popular in the United States.
“In 1981, When Israel bombed the Osirak reactor in Iraq, the Reagan administration ?condemned it; even [U.S. Ambassador to the UN] Jeanne Kirkpatrick, who was a ?passionate friend of Israel’s, had to vote against it. Yet popular opinion was more than 80 ?percent in favor. Americans were saying, ‘Why don’t we have the guts to do something ?like that?’ ?
“I think you would get a similar reaction from the American public if Israel bombed Iran; ?in which case, whether he liked it or not, President Obama would have very little choice ?but to resupply Israel.?”
Even as a lame duck president? Would he really have to take public opinion into ?account? ?
“He wouldn’t have to, but it’s very hard to resist that kind of pressure.?”
You have always said that Israel needs the U.S. and therefore cannot afford to ?dismiss its wishes. How, then, can you support Israel’s thumbing its nose at its most ?important ally??
“Israel does need America, and the strategic necessity of keeping it friendly is an ?overriding consideration in almost every situation — except this one. Iranian nuclear ?weapons would put Israel in immediate mortal peril. Under such extreme circumstances, ?and left to its own devices by the West, Israel wouldn’t have much choice but to take ?military action.?
“You know, everyone has been saying that one of the worst things that will happen if Iran ?gets the bomb is that there will be a nuclear arms race across the Middle East. My view is ?that we would be lucky to have enough time for an arms race. If Iran gets the bomb, ?Israel will be in a hair-trigger situation of a kind that has never existed since the invention ?of nuclear weapons. In the event that Iran gets the bomb, Israelis will ask themselves: ‘Do we sit and wait to be attacked and then retaliate out of the rubble, or do we pre-empt’ The Iranians will be asking themselves the same question. So, one is going to beat the other to the punch.”
This sounds like Mutual Assured Destruction, as existed between the U.S. and the Soviet Union during the Cold War. Why is this situation any different?
“The difference is that the Soviet regime was evil, but it was not suicidal; it was very prudent. Whereas, from everything we can tell, the mullocracy in Iran doesn’t care about the prospect of destruction. We know that the Ayatollah Khomeini had said he didn’t ?give a damn about Iran; what he cared about was the Muslim umma. Even [Iranian ?politician Akbar Hashemi] Rafsanjani, who is considered a moderate in the West, once said that if Iran has a nuclear exchange with Israel, Israel would be completely destroyed, but the Muslim world would survive. He did not refer to Iran.
“According to their religious ideology, patriotism is a form of idolatry. And [Supreme Leader Ali] Khamenei gives every indication of believing the same thing.
“During the Iran-Iraq War, the Iranians sent hundreds of thousands of children into mine ?fields with plastic keys — the keys to paradise — around their necks. There was nothing ?similar in Soviet mentality or behavior. The only thing that comes close was the Japanese ?Kamikaze pilots in World War II. But even that was considered a desperate measure ?taken by the Japanese when they were losing. In any case, they had a totally different ?world view from that of the Iranians.?”
Nevertheless, the P5+1 countries are engaging in negotiations with Iran, while ?pressuring Israel to make a deal with Palestinians, many of whom are backed by ?Iran. How do you explain that??
“They do not believe that Iran is suicidal, and that a deal can be reached with it. And ?though I hate to resort to what the philosopher, Leo Strauss, called argumentum ad ?Hitlerum, the situation now is very similar to 1938-39 in Europe, when the British and the ?French were unable to admit to themselves that Hitler was a dangerous foe. ?
“?’We can do business with Herr Hitler,’ was the slogan. And it’s because they weren’t ?prepared to do what was necessary to resist him, they had to persuade themselves that it ?wasn’t necessary. In that case, they sacrificed the Czechs for the sake of the deal they ?were making with Germany. Today, there are many people who are willing to sacrifice the ?Israelis for the sake of a deal with Iran. ?
“They certainly don’t see it that way; they persuade themselves that by putting pressure on ?Israel, they’re doing Israel a favor. I remember a famous article written in 1977 by the ?former undersecretary of state, George Ball: ‘How to Save Israel in Spite of Herself.’ ?
“That insane mentality of ‘knowing Israel’s interests better than the Israelis do’ still exists ?in the State Department and in the foreign ministries of other Western countries. But ?many of them are, in fact, simply hostile to Israel.?”
Is this, as the Israeli Left likes to claim, the fault of Prime Minister Benjamin ?Netanyahu — whom they accuse of causing the isolation of Israel in the international ?community??
“That’s absurd. The same attitudes towards Israel existed when Netanyahu was still a ?furniture salesman, which is what he was when I first met him. It has nothing to do with him. It is true that he and Obama do not like one another. But it’s childish to think that personal relationships are a serious factor in the actions of nations.
“Former U.S. president George W. Bush, who had a different world view from that of Obama — and who had a great personal relationship with the late prime minister Ariel Sharon — did not bomb Iran either.
“I can apologize for him to this extent: Everyone in his administration except [Vice President] Dick Cheney was against it. Henry Kissinger once told me that these were the most insubordinate State Department and Pentagon in American history.
“Though there was a moment at which Bush might have been able to pull it off, the CIA sabotaged it by releasing an intelligence report assessing Iran wasn’t working on the bomb. Some of us knew at that point that this was nonsense. But the fact is that it made it impossible for Bush to be able to claim that there was imminent danger.
“Before the CIA report came out, I had a 45-minute meeting with Bush, during which I tried to persuade him to bomb Iran. He listened very solemnly, interrupting once or twice to ask a question.
“One question he asked was, ‘Why are the Jews all against me?’ A few years later, I wrote ?a book [‘Why Are Jews Liberals?’ 2010] trying to answer that question. ?
“But I had an article in galleys at that point in which I predicted he was going to bomb Iran. I had a chance to take that passage out or rewrite it, but I decided to let it stay, because I felt pretty sure when I left him that he was going to do it. And I think he wanted to. He then justified his inaction to himself by saying, ‘Well, John McCain is going to be the next president, and he’ll be able to get away with it better than I.’ But, of course, Obama became the next president.”
Obama has said that though he will exhaust every other avenue, he will not let Iran ?get the bomb, even if he has to take military action. Why is this any different from ?what Bush said?
“Look, at a certain point in the early 2000s, every country without exception said that Iran must not be allowed to get the bomb. There was also a universal consensus that force should be used, if necessary, not only because of nuclear proliferation, but because Iran is a rogue regime that might not only use nuclear weapons, but could give them to their proxies like Hezbollah. This was the consensus even before Mahmoud Ahmadinejad ?became president, and his presidency only reinforced the idea that the regime was crazy. ?Every intelligence agency in the world — without exception — said that Iran was building ?nuclear weapons. There was no debate about it. The only debate was weather it could be ?stopped short of military action, with carrots and sticks, diplomacy and sanctions.
“That’s when multi-party negotiations started.
“But as time went on, and it became clearer and clearer to people involved in the process that they were not going to succeed with negotiations, they were faced with the question of what to do now: Do we let Iran have the bomb, or do we take military action?
“It was then that the foreign policy establishment in the U.S. and other countries began to say, ‘Well, we’re probably exaggerating; the Iranians are not really crazy.’ And this meant that, due to Mutually Assured Destruction, we could probably live with an Iranian bomb.
“The election of Hassan Rouhani, touted by the West as a moderate, was confirmation of this idea in their minds, which justified an escape from military action against Iran, and then to go on pretending that an Iranian bomb can be prevented through an agreement.
“In any case, the only reason that Obama wants an agreement is so that he can take credit for preventing Iran from getting the bomb, knowing all the while, deep-down, that no agreement they might reach would prevent Iran from getting the bomb.
“As for pressure on Israel: The view of one administration after another has been that Israel needs to be forced to make peace, as though it were up to Israel to do so. Only Bush put the ball in the Palestinians’ court.
“But the idea that this conflict is the key to stability in the Middle East is ridiculous. Most conflicts in the region since 1948, when Israel was established, have had nothing to do with Israel; nor did the Arab Spring uprisings have anything to do with Israel. Yet many people still believe — or profess to — that peace between Israel and the Palestinians is necessary for stability.
“Putting pressure on Israel is what the diplomats believe is a way of achieving détente with Iran. Though Iran doesn’t give a damn about a Palestinian state, it does care about wiping Israel off the map, so putting Israel in a situation of maximum danger suits its purposes ?very well.
Even prominent members of Netanyahu’s coalition, such as Justice Minister Tzipi Livni, who headed the peace talks with the Palestinians, claim that it is Netanyahu’s fault there is no peace deal, and even blame him for the unity government with ?Hamas and everything that has happened since then. What do you say about that?
“The only way peace is going to come, if it ever does, is if the Palestinians and their Arab allies call off the war they’ve been waging against the Jewish state since before it was born. It is not in the power of Israel to make peace. There is nothing — except committing ?suicide — that Netanyahu or any other prime minister could do that would result in peace.
“Three offers of statehood were made to the Palestinians which met most of their conditions, and each was rejected. The Palestinians do not want a state that would exist side by side with Israel. I’m not sure they want a state at all, because it’s much easier to sit around and collect aid and not be responsible for anything. But, even assuming they want a state, it would not be one alongside Israel, but replacing Israel. And until they give up that dream, there can be no peace, no matter what Israel does or does not do.”
Many Israelis who agree with that assessment nevertheless say that in order to ?preserve Israel’s Jewish and democratic character, a Palestinian state has to be ?established. These people are pushing for an Israeli withdrawal to the 1967 borders, ?either by means of a treaty with the Palestinians or unilaterally. ?
As someone who supported Sharon’s disengagement from Gaza in 2005, how do you ?view the situation today??
“I supported Sharon for two reasons. First of all, I thought it was a strategic retreat, ?delineating a boundary that was more secure for Israeli civilians, who were being killed ?daily by Palestinian suicide bombers. Secondly, I thought that if the Palestinians were to ?do what they subsequently ended up doing, Sharon would react forcefully. But then ?Sharon had a stroke and Olmert took over. And Olmert waited three years before ?responding to the missile-fire from Gaza.
“Lebanon was another example. So there are two living experiments involving Israeli withdrawals. To think that withdrawal from other territories would have a better result is ludicrous. In fact, it would have a much worse result. To blame Israel for any of it is irrational.”
Does it constitute anti-Semitism?
“In many cases it does. I’m not prepared to say that Livni and Olmert are anti-Semites. But I’m certainly prepared to say that many people who support such a position, ?including if they’re Jewish, are anti-Semites. I don’t like the concept of the self-hating Jew, because most of the supposedly self-hating Jews I’ve known are madly in love with themselves.”
Is being anti-Israel a category of its own, distinguishable from anti-Semitism?
“Almost immediately after the Six Day War, the Left all over the world began turning against Israel. I then wrote a piece in which I said that anti-Zionism was becoming increasingly difficult to distinguish from anti-Semitism. This caused a furor for which I have still not been forgiven all these years later. When I said this at a meeting of the American Jewish Committee, people actually got up and walked out. And when I published it in Commentary, there were letters cancelling subscriptions and accusing me of saying that anybody who criticizes Israel is an anti-Semite. That is not what I said, and I didn’t believe it then. But I’m beginning to believe it now.
“Of course Israel isn’t perfect. But the very fact that one is forced to say this is already indicative of a double standard. Whoever claimed that anything or anyone was perfect?
“This is why I never qualify a defense of Israel with an acknowledgement of its flaws.”
What about those who say they are not anti-Zionists, but oppose settlements?
“I think the settlement issue is a red herring that suits Palestinian propaganda. People who ?put the burden on Israel for peace carry on about it, even when what is at stake is the ?construction of additional apartments in areas everyone knows is going to be part of Israel ?in the event of a two-state solution. ?
“The people who insist that it is Israel’s fault that there is no deal have a very hard time producing evidence of this. Settlements are the only argument they’ve got left.
“I’ve been saying this for so many years that it makes me fall asleep by now, but this is not a territorial conflict — except that the territory in question is the entire state of Israel. The Palestinians make no secret of this.?
“Furthermore, whenever Israel does anything to defend itself, it is accused of acting disproportionately or committing war crimes. Just look at what is happening now, in the aftermath of the execution of three Israeli teenagers at the hands of Palestinian terrorists — and retaliation for Hamas missile fire from Gaza.
“That there is a new form of anti-Semitism at work here is unquestionable. The attacks on ?Israel are a translation into the terms of international affairs of the old attacks on Jews in ?the Diaspora.”
As a fierce critic of Obama’s foreign and domestic policies, and with the mid-term Congressional elections under way — what is your assessment of a potential Republican victory in 2016?
“There is a very good chance that the Republicans will take over the Senate this year. There is also a chance for a Republican to win the presidential election in 2016. But the Republicans can always be relied upon to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory.”
If the American people reject the Democratic Party, what would this be in response to?
“We’ve got a president in office now for almost six years who announced that he wanted ?to transform the country. It turned out that he meant what he said. And I think he’s done ?a very good job of pursuing his own agenda, which is to turn the country domestically ?into a clone of Western Europe — with a social-democratic system — and to weaken American influence in the world at large. He is succeeding in both of those strategic objectives. That’s why I have said that people who claim Obama is in over his head and ?incompetent don’t understand what’s going on.
“But many Americans do understand, even if not in theoretical terms, that something bad is going on. Some are focusing on the economy; and though most people don’t care much about foreign policy in ordinary times, there is a growing uneasiness about America being pushed around.
“Right after World War II, Dean Acheson, the secretary of state under Harry Truman, said that the American public cares about two things: bringing the boys back home and not letting anybody push America around. It seems like a contradiction, but it isn’t. Yeah, you want to bring the boys back home, but not to such a degree that you’re at the mercy of people who want to hurt you. This is what more and more Americans are feeling today.
“The question — which is not often posed — is: ‘What do you want this country to look and act like’ ?
“Do you want it to continue on the path that’s it’s been on since World War II — that is, to be the leader of the Free World, with a democratic polity and free market economy, which has resulted in more freedom and more prosperity for more of its people, including the poor, than any society in the history of the world? Or do you think it should be radically transformed, in the way that Obama and those who think like him would like to see??
“This is going to be at least the subliminal issue of the next presidential election.
“I wish I were more confident that a majority of Americans will make what I consider the right choice.”